The Dangers of Materialism in Democracy and How We Can Avoid Them
During the Christmas season, most Westerners plan parties, go shopping for gifts, and frantically try to decorate their houses to impress their neighbors. It’s a tradition that has been central to the Western way of life for generations, and it is not going away any time soon.
While the celebration continues, the true meaning of Christmas (celebration of the birth of Christ) is being lost over time as societies become more secularized, and religious affiliation declines. After all, if one does not believe in the religious system upon which Christmas is based, why would the meaning be remembered?
The subsequent result of this secularization is that the holiday turns from a consideration of the higher things, of salvation, of God’s grace and love, into something much more lowly. That is, the holiday has simply become a time for humans to exchange different kinds of material things and see each other at least once a year. That kind of tradition is a nice thing, but does it do justice to the meaning of the season, and does it only degrade us in the process?
There is, of course, nothing wrong with exchanging of gifts. Indeed, the exchange of gifts is designed to reflect the fact that Christ was God’s gift to us. Hence, we give each other gifts in remembrance of that. But without that perspective, how can the true meaning of Christmas be preserved as a culture? It simply cannot.
While many people of faith decry this secularization as a sad trend, it has other consequences besides just holiday traditions. Indeed, the commercialization of Christmas is a symptom of a bigger issue that almost inevitably plagues democratic societies, unless combated with religious beliefs.
In Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, he observed that Americans have a rather ardent passion for material well-being. However, they combated the dangers of that passion by adhering strongly to their religious beliefs.
[T]he American at times steals an hour from himself, and, laying aside for a while the petty passions which agitate his life, and the ephemeral interests which engross it, he strays at once into an ideal world, where all is great, eternal, and pure.
The result is that these beliefs — where one keeps his mind on the things that are higher than the earth — inform the believers how to use material things rightly, and how to treat other people in the pursuit of righteousness.
But what happens without such guidance, when the sole pursuit of material well-being is not so that one may serve their fellow man better, but simply for the sake of material well-being itself?
[W]hile man takes delight in this honest and lawful pursuit of his own well-being, it is to be apprehended that in the end he may lose the use of his sublimest faculties, and that while he is busied in improving all around him, he may at length degrade himself.
With a people’s minds being in such a state, man becomes merely a material being in his own eyes, and can act as if he is no higher than the beasts. Tocqueville ironically observes that as the materialists claim to prove we are merely brutes, "They appear as proud as if they had demonstrated that they are gods."
If the love of material well-being is left unchecked, man may forget his unique position as the image-bearer of God, and he will be degraded in the process. If there is nothing higher than the material, what is the entire purpose of our being? If material well-being is the purpose, we enter a self-destructive circle of meaninglessness.
Democracy encourages a taste for physical gratification; this taste, if it become excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is matter only; and materialism, in its turn, hurries them on with mad impatience to these same delights; such is the fatal circle within which democratic nations are driven round. It were well that they should see the danger and hold back.
There is a solution to this though, and it involves active community effort to keep people’s minds on that which is higher than the tangible.
It should therefore be the unceasing object of the legislators of democracies and of all the virtuous and enlightened men who live there to raise the souls of their fellow citizens and keep them lifted up towards heaven. It is necessary that all who feel an interest in the future destinies of democratic society should unite, and that all should make joint and continual efforts to diffuse the love of the infinite, lofty aspirations, and a love of pleasures not of earth.
Tocqueville admitted that his answer would do him no good in the eyes of politicians, but he understood that if a people are to be kept from falling into the black hole of materialism, that the people must have their thoughts on that which reigns high above us.
This Christmas season, consider these things, as this season is not merely about exchanging material things, but about remembering the moment in time when the Good News came to earth at Christ’s birth. In God alone do we find the cure for the diseases that plague society, and only through Him can we achieve a truly satisfied and happy life.